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Episode 5: What’s it like to be a special agent with HSI?

Careers at ICE Podcast

During this episode of Careers at ICE, hear from Special Agent Allison Carter Anderson and Special Agent Cory Downs, who will discuss what it's like to be a Special Agent with ICE's Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI.

>> Welcome to the Careers at ICE podcast. This podcast highlights career opportunities at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the hiring process, and how to put your best foot forward. Our guests today are Special Agent Allison Carter Anderson and Special Agent Cory Downs, who will be discussing what it's like to be a Special Agent with ICE's Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI. Thank you both for being here today. To start out, Allison, would you talk about the mission of HSI, and perhaps clarify for our listeners what HSI actually does?
>> Homeland Security Investigations is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and our mission, as it's written, is to investigate, disrupt, and dismantle terrorists, transnational and other criminal organizations that threaten or seek to exploit the Customs and Immigration laws of the United States. So since we are the largest investigative law enforcement presence for DHS, it is our job to enforce and investigate over 400 laws that relate to crimes that touch or cross our land and sea borders, as well as our airports. So we enforce those 400 laws at all of our borders to ensure national safety, to keep the public safe, and to ensure and maintain our country's homeland security.
>> And could you both share with our listeners about what your current job is now? Talk a little bit about your background and how you got into this position. Cory, how about you go first.
>> So back in the early 1990s, I was a college student in my senior year, didn't know what I was going to do. And a friend of mine was going to take the test for the U.S. Border Patrol, and I went with him. I passed the test, and he didn't. And I got offered the job as a Border Patrol Agent. So I left for [INAUDIBLE], Texas, and was there for three years. Then I was homesick -- I'm from San Antonio -- I left the Border Patrol to take a job as what we now call a Customs and Border Protection Officer at the San Antonio airport. I did that job for a year. And then I got picked up as a Special Agent with then INS Investigations in 1998. And then when Homeland Security was formed a couple of years after that, I transitioned to that agency, and that's where I am now.
>> Wow. And Allison?
>> My story is somewhat similar, in that I started my career on the Southwest border. I was initially hired by U.S. Customs, and we actually went through the merger with Immigration and became the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, while I was in our Academy in Brunswick, Georgia. So when I reported for duty, I started out at our Operation Alliance office in San Ysidro, California, and I was there for almost six years. And while I was there, I got a lot of good exposure to being in court and preparing cases for prosecution. I was regularly conducting interviews, because I was working three very busy ports of entry land border crossings, San Ysidro, Otay and Tecate. So since I started my career out there, I got a lot of really good experience early on in my career.
>> You both have had significant accomplishments in your careers. Can you talk about some of your proudest achievements, and talk a little bit more about what a typical day in your current position with ICE is now?
>> My current assignment is with our work site enforcement group in Tampa. And on our work site enforcement group, I am the IMAGE Coordinator, which is the ICE mutual agreement between government and employers, program coordinator. What that means is, I work with companies who sign up to be members of the IMAGE program. And these companies want to make sure that they are completely compliant with our work site enforcement laws. So I train them in works like compliance, and help guide them through what we believe are the best practices to get in compliance and stay in compliance. I also, in my duties as the IMAGE Program Coordinator for Tampa, conduct outreach to our various partners throughout Central and North Florida for my program. My typical day could be preparing documents for court. I could be testifying in front of grand jury, assisting my coworkers with surveillance or another task for their investigations, or one of my investigations. Like I mentioned previously, I could be training one of our member companies or serving Notice of Inspection. I also help out with recruiting for our office, so I also talk to local stakeholders, and to various college and universities around Central and North Florida about our agency as well.
>> And Cory?
>> So what a typical day is for me, I think, is one of the best-selling points of working for Homeland Security Investigations, instead of one of the other agencies, right? So if you choose to be a Special Agent for DEA, for example, the first case you are going to work at at the Academy is a drug case, and then 25 years later when you're wrapping up your career, the last case is going to be a drug case. ATF -- kind of the same thing. So with Homeland Security, we, as Allison mentioned earlier, we enforce just an incredible array of laws. So you really can't pin down what a typical day is for us, because every single day is going to be different. Like Allison said, you know, your day might start at 2:00 a.m. when your phone rings and you have to roll out on an alien smuggling load on the side of the road. You might get tapped to go ride in the helicopter that day on a mobile surveillance. You might do an IMAGE presentation. I just did one, Allison, yesterday, right? So I also get involved in that here. You know, there's -- it's so broad, it's so different that you just don't know. For example, yesterday I had an informant come in, and I interviewed him for a couple of hours about an alien smuggling case. We're trying to backtrack and work a case where some folks were getting smuggled in the back of an 18-wheeler, and some people died. So we're still working on that case. Really, there's no typical day -- and that's what I love about this job. When I wake up, every day I'm energized to go in and do something different. It's not a nine to five job. You have to be on your toes. You have to be the kind of person that can roll with the punches, and do something different every day. You have to be totally prepared for the unexpected at all times.
>> That leads us into our next question, for sure. Let's talk a little bit about the perceived challenges about having a career in federal law enforcement; things like work-life balance, schedules, work location, and how dangerous this career may be.
>> You know, sometimes there isn't going to be work-life balance. When I was working the Southwest border, the majority of my waking hours were spent at work. And we worked days, nights, holidays, weekends. And some days I would leave home in the morning and think I was going to be home for dinner and I would get home three days later, because we conducted a controlled delivery, and I started at the border and ended up four states away before I got back home again. Now that I'm in an interior office, things have slowed down a little bit in regards to that, but I do have opportunities now where I have been able to work special details with the Super Bowl, when it comes to town in Tampa, that's something we help with security for. I have also been able to participate in a few secret service TDYs, which have been very interesting. But, you know, it's important to have a good support system in place with your friends and your family, and with your coworkers. I find that my relationships with my coworkers have been just as important as my relationships with my friends and family, because you spend so much time with them, and they can be a great source of support for what's going on at home, because our spouses and families don't understand all the time why we're not always there. Even though we're physically there, we might be on our phones, because we are available 24-7. And sometimes when our investigations get busy, we carry that home. And it's important for us to be able to take time to physically take care of ourselves, and emotionally and mentally take care of ourselves when we have the time to slow down from work.
>> Anything to add, Cory?
>> Definitely. Listen, Allison said it exactly right. It's more of a lifestyle than a job. So when you sign up to be a Special Agent with Homeland Security Investigations, you're signing on for 24-hour a day availability. When I go take a shower, my phone goes in there with me, because inevitably that's the time that the phone call is going to come in. And that's just what it's like. Your family has to understand that what you do is -- what you do in this job is important, and it has to take priority over a lot of things. Now, I'm not that guy that recommends you ever miss a kid's baseball game or a parent-teacher conference, but you really have to hustle and work around to make yourself available for all of those things. The government puts a huge amount of trust and responsibility on you when they give you that badge to hang on your belt, and you have to live up to it. And part that is, like Allison said, you know, you have to have your home life in order, where you can go to work and not come home for three days, because it is 100 percent definitely going to happen sometimes.
>> This question is for Allison. Women are still a minority population in federal law enforcement. Talk about what being a female law enforcement officer means to you.
>> I believe that having women in our agency as agents makes us a stronger agency, and makes it, in lots of ways, easier for us to carry out our mission. Having diversity in our workforce brings different skillsets into our agency that we need. We can sometimes, as women get doors to open that male agents can't, and I think that we are able to sometimes diffuse situations because just our mere presence can sometimes make people calm down. We have different ways of responding and dealing with these situations, and we may be able to de-escalate them in a way that a male agent could not. There are challenges, but I make sure that I pitch in and give every task my best effort. I'm very honest with myself about what my abilities and limitations are. I have a background working in a clerical position in various law firms prior to coming to work for the government, so I was very well-versed in research and in writing, and in preparing documents for court and in dealing for attorneys. So I believe one of my strengths are writing effectively and communicating with attorneys. So I do a lot of proofreading of my co-worker's documents before they turn them in to our attorneys for prosecution. But I will say as a woman, some of the challenges I face are physical, so I make sure I'm in the gym lifting weights and getting cardio in six or seven days a week, because our jobs are very physically demanding. And I want to make sure that I can keep up with my male counterparts.
>> And this question is for Cory. Talk a little about the process to become an ICE Special Agent. For example, what kind of training, academic or physical, is required once you get accepted?
>> Well, I think Allison touched a little bit on the physical requirements of the job -- you have to be in shape. You really don't know when you're going to go from sitting in your desk writing a report to being in a pursuit, or chasing somebody, having to jump over a fence at any time. So we require our folks to be in pretty good shape when they go to our Academy, and we require them to be in good shape when they get out of our Academy. You can go online and see what our physical requirements are; what the barrier is. But that's just a bare minimum requirement. You know, we would hope that everybody would strive to be better than that. The basic process for getting in -- you have to look on the website,, right, so that's where we do all of our hiring. Homeland Security Investigations is not like getting a job at wherever -- Walmart or McDonald's, or something like that. We're not hiring all the time. So you have to keep your eye on, see when we have an open announcement. I think we had -- somebody correct me -- did we just have, I think, two open announcements last year? Maybe three? Yeah. And so they don't come along very often. So when they come on, when they open up, you have to be prepared with your resume to fire off your application right then and there. And so once you find that announcement and you put in for it, then to follow up, you'll have to pass, like I said, that physical barrier force -- you're absolutely going to have to pass a drug test. You're absolutely going to have to sit down and do an interview in front of current HSI Special Agents, usually at a supervisory level, and convince them why you're good enough for this job. And then what we've started, something new, and it's just kind of starting to happen right now, is having our new applicants go through a polygraph also. We do so much national security-related work that it's just something we had to add in. And something I'd like to mention to anybody that's listening that's trying to come on board, where those little sort of unwritten things that are going to help you get this job -- there's really no -- we don't have, like, a standard issue officer. I think Allison had mentioned earlier that the diversity that we have in this agency is one of the things that makes us great. We have a need for a special skill that you have -- I like to use the example of somebody that knows how to drive a forklift, right? You might not think that that has anything to do with this job. But on your resume, if you put that on there in, like, a little special skills section -- that's the kind of thing that can bump you ahead of the other 20,000 people that are applying for this job, because who knows when we're running an undercover warehouse sometime, and we need somebody in there that can drive a forklift, or whatever -- you're perfect for that job. We do tend to hire a lot of folks out of the Border Patrol, because the work is so closely related. And folks out of the military, they're a shoe-in for this job. They already know how to follow directions. They know how to do things in a proper way. Some of the best folks that we have in my office where I work now came straight from military over to us, and they've worked out just great.
>> Allison, Cory just touched on this, but what is really needed to succeed in your field, in your opinion? And is there any advice that you would give perspective candidates?
>> I would advise any perspective candidate to do their research, and make sure that they're well-informed about our agency and our mission, and our position. 1811 criminal investigators have a very wide array of authorities that we enforce here at HSI and investigate. So make sure you're informed. And as Cory touched on previously, we're not like DEA, where we're a single scope in our investigations. We investigate narcotics. We also investigate cybercrimes. We investigate fraud cases, smuggling of antiquities -- anything that crosses a border. So I think that I can find a way for pretty much every college degree to fit in somewhere at HSI. So I tell people, don't get discouraged if you think your degree doesn't apply here, because it probably does, because we do have such a broad array of investigative authorities that we cover.
>> If I can just chime in -- I was an English major in college, so --
>> I was a History major with a minor in French, so there you go.
>> See? Yeah, that fits perfectly, right? Yeah.
>> Lots of -- and both our degrees speak to how important it is to have good communication skills in writing and orally. If you can't write down what happened when you're out on the street conducting surveillance or covering a meeting, then you do not have a case to present for prosecution to our assistant United States Attorney's office, and your case is never going to go to court, and you may never get your bad guys locked up, which is ultimately what our job is -- to keep our streets free, keep our borders safe. So communication is key in our job. I suggest that if you are not fond of public speaking, that you find a way to sharpen those skills as well.
>> That's a great point, thank you. And thank you both for taking the time to share your stories and wisdom with us today. To our listeners, please go to to find detailed information about ICE career tracks, a list of upcoming recruiting events, sign up for email career update notifications, specific job descriptions, and a list of frequently asked questions. Please join us next time on Careers at ICE to learn more about the agency and how to start your career in law enforcement.